Wednesday night's game between the Caps and the Philadelphia Flyers was a battle between the top two teams in the Metropolitan Division, but it ended up looking like a couple of ships passing in the night. Washington played a strong first period but fell apart in the second, falling 5-2 to the Flyers, who won their seventh straight game to pull within a point of the Capitals for the Metro lead.
When the two teams met in Philly less than two months ago on Jan. 8, first-place Washington owned a 15-point bulge over the sixth-place Flyers in the Metro standings. But while Philly has forged the league's second-best record since then at 17-5-1, the Caps have been stuck in neutral. Washington is 10-11-1 over the same span, taking more than half of its 20 regulation losses during that stretch.
"Our boys came to play," says Flyers coach Alain Vigneault. "I think it showed a lot about the will and the character of this group here. Obviously we haven't accomplished anything yet here, but tonight was a big game for both teams."
Along with a 7-2 pasting at the hands of the Flyers here on Feb. 8, Wednesday's loss is the second home ice setback by three or more goals the Caps have taken from Philly in less than a month.
"Definitely at home against a Metro team, that's not what we're looking for, that's for sure," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "I liked our start, I liked some physicality in the beginning of the game, and then we lost some momentum from some special teams situations."
Washington had the first two power play opportunities of Wednesday's game, but it was unable to take advantage of either of those chances to jump out front. Seconds after the second of those man-advantages ended, the Caps broke the seal on the scoresheet.
Caps defenseman Brenden Dillon started the play from the Washington end, sending a pass up the wall for Carl Hagelin, who deflected it into Philadelphia ice, setting up a foot race that was won by Washington winger Richard Panik. Panik collected the puck just above the left circle, promptly issuing a behind-the-back feed to Lars Eller. Eller had a step on his man, and he put the puck on his forehand and lifted it past Philly netminder Brian Elliott high on the stick side, staking the Caps to a 1-0 lead at 14:09 of the first frame.
Late in the first, Caps winger Tom Wilson and Philly pivot Nate Thompson dropped the mitts and had a spirited scrap.
Washington had three of the game's first four power plays, and the third of those carried into the second period. Forty seconds after that penalty expired, the Caps put themselves into several minutes of penalty peril, a stretch that enabled Philadelphia to muster the equalizer and ultimately altered the complexion of the contest.
The Caps took three minors in a span of just 4:17, sandwiching a couple of stick penalties around a bench minor for too many men before the first television timeout of the second period. Philly got a dozen seconds worth of two-man advantage time out of it, and Travis Konency appeared to have scored just after the two-man portion expired.
Officials waved the goal off immediately, and a subsequent video review didn't change their mind. But Konecny scored before the power play expired anyway, evening the game at 1-1 at 7:06 of the second when he put back a rebound of an Ivan Provorov point shot.
Minutes later, the Caps were whistled for their fourth minor of the period, and fourth in a span of 11:25 of playing time. They killed it off, but Philly took a 2-1 lead six seconds after the penalty expired, Derek Grant making a nifty kick feed to Kevin Hayes for a tap-in from the top of the paint at 14:48.
Just over two minutes later, Philly scored its third unanswered goal of the frame to take a two-goal lead. The Caps dumped the puck into the Flyers' zone and went after it, but Elliott turned it over to Jakub Vrana near the Philly goal line. Vrana whirled and threw a hope pass in front, right to Philadelphia's Michael Raffl, who carried out of his end leading a rare 5-on-2 rush. All three Washington forwards were behind the play. Raffl made a quick exchange with linemate Nicolas Aube-Kubel, then dished to late arriving Tyler Pitlick who scored from the slot to make it 3-1 at 17:05.
Just over a minute later, Washington recovered from that embarrassment to close within one. Dillon collected a turnover near the Caps' line and fed Nic Dowd, who sent Garnet Hathaway into Philly ice with Wilson. The two worked a give-and-go, with Hathaway finishing on a chip shot to the shelf, making it 3-2 at 18:32.
Late in the second, Wilson got into another scrap, this one with third-pair Philly defenseman Robert Hagg. When Raffl went off for hooking early in the third, Wilson was still in the box and unavailable for the power play. The Caps didn't take advantage of that chance to get even, and just over a minute later, the deficit got bigger when Provorov walked into the zone late, accepted a pass from Jakub Voracek, and had all the time and space needed to pick a corner and beat Holtby, giving the Flyers a 4-2 lead at 6:36.
Scott Laughton finished the scoring at 14:15 to account for the 5-2 final.
Having won three of four coming into Wednesday's game, the Caps couldn't build on that success and instead took a step backwards against the Flyers. They're down to 16 games left on the season, and it's fair to wonder right now what and who they are as a team. A hot start to the season has faded under the weight of an underwhelming 14-14-1 spell that has now stretched for over two months.
"Overall, we're just not playing our best," says Eller. "We're playing pretty far from our best, and it's been like that for a couple of weeks."
The Caps won't have long to wallow in this one; they head directly to Manhattan where they'll start a three-game road trip against the Rangers on Thursday.
"Like I've said all year long," says Reirden, "you evaluate postgame things that you can improve on, things that you can do different, things that you like that you added to your game, different combinations, line combinations, [defensive] pairs. And we're working towards a final product.
"We're trying different line combinations, like I said. It's a work in progress. [Is it] concerning? Yeah, I want to win every game. And one like tonight's and the rest of this week are important. So where are go [Thursday] against the Rangers will be a tough test in their building against a team that's sitting there waiting for us. I thought we were in a decent spot to start this game, and we kind of let it get away from us."